'Heroes,' 'Office,' 'Deal' boosting fourth place network

In all likelihood, NBC will finish in fourth place again this season, but there are clear signs the net is headed in the right direction.

Sure, much of its gains this season can be attributed to “Sunday Night Football,” but the Peacock seems to have effectively transferred some of that young, male aud to its other shows.

NBC has the hottest new drama (“Heroes”), the top reality show of the past few years (“Deal or No Deal”) and arguably the hottest hour of laffers (“My Name Is Earl” and “The Office”).

There are, of course, plenty of hours that need work, and NBC figures to finish fourth among adults 18-49 for a third straight season after dominating much of the previous decade.

But through 16 weeks, at least, the net was in a three-way with ABC and CBS for the lead in the key demo.

NBC’s up 16% in adults 18-49 vs. last year (and 6% if you toss out sports) and has risen 20% in adults 18-34, according to Nielsen. In the latter, it has moved — at least temporarily — from fourth to first.

NBC has also trimmed the median age of its audience by about two years — an encouraging sign for a net that had begun to rely too heavily on older-skewing shows like “Law & Order” and “Dateline.”

Here’s a closer look:

What sizzled: NBC owns five of the season’s top 20 shows among adults 18-49, led by “Heroes” at No. 5 and “Sunday Night Football,” which has ended its season at No. 6.

“Heroes” is just what the net was lacking — a top 10 hit that has both viewers and critics buzzing. It’s the top-rated new drama of the past two seasons among young adults, and has helped lift the Peacock to No. 1 in demos on Monday.

It’s also the No. 1 scripted program in primetime among men 18-49, despite opposing ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

“Deal or No Deal” is holding up better than expected, with its Monday edition winning handily. A second weekly seg, originally skedded for Thursday, will now regularly play Wednesdays at 9 in a defensive position for the net — opposite Fox’s “American Idol” and CBS’ rising “Criminal Minds.”

“ER” has held up pretty well, ranking 12th among all shows in 18-49 and winning its slot, though down about 8% vs. last year. Another vet, “Law & Order: SVU,” also remains in the top 20 and continues to win its Tuesday hour.

The Thursday comedy combo of “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” has picked up steam, and is probably the strongest sitcom hour on television.

NBC also deserves kudos for its overall rise in quality. A recent critics list featured four young Peacock skeins — “Heroes,” “The Office,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Studio 60″ — among the top 10 shows on television, the most of any net.

What fizzled: NBC had one of the season’s outright bombs in the serialized “Kidnapped,” while the critically derided “Twenty Good Years” lasted just a few weeks.

“Studio 60″ and the superb “Friday Night Lights” haven’t shown any spark in the ratings, although they certainly have their loyal auds and critical support. It’s disappointing that NBC hasn’t done more to shine a spotlight on the unique, quietly affecting “Lights.”

What’s ahead: Paul Haggis’ “The Black Donnellys,” a family drama about organized crime in Gotham, will air behind “Heroes” in March. It looks to be another tough sell, but has a better shot at succeeding in this slot than “Studio 60″ and is probably the net’s best chance at a second-half breakout hit.

Expectations aren’t as high for Jeff Goldblum detective drama “Raines,” which will take the place of “Las Vegas” on the Friday sked in March. Sounds like nothing special, but this is a good timeslot for such a show, and a compatible lead-in for “Law & Order.”

Gameshow “Identity” did reasonably well in its weeklong run in December, but it’s no “Deal or No Deal.” If it returns, it might work better as a series of specials behind “Deal” or another gamer.

And look for NBC to try at least one laffer — either “Singles Table” or “Andy Barker, P.I.” — in its Thursday lineup, perhaps spelling “30 Rock” in March.

Biggest question marks: “Heroes” will take on Fox’s returning “24” in a heavyweight drama battle on Mondays. While both are faves of men, a younger skew should help “Heroes” hold on to most of its early-season aud.

“Sunday Night Football” is gone, but the reality combo of “Grease” and “The Apprentice,” which got off to a solid start last week, could help the net put up good-enough numbers on the tough night.

The Peacock will also be looking to see if there’s any ratings uptick for some of its struggling rookie shows. Of these, “30 Rock,” which is holding onto a decent percentage of its “Scrubs” lead-in, has the best shot to improve in its current timeslot.

Bottom line: After some dismal seasons — remember “LAX” and “Inconceivable”? — some of the swagger is back at NBC, which is another top-10 hit away from challenging for next season’s title.

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